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Crucial Conversations QA

Facing a Potential Layoff

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve been with the same company for twenty-five plus years. It is a good company. We have had three “workforce reductions” in the past six years. I feel another one coming. I am fifty and therefore vested. However, at fifty-five, my early retirement pay would go up. Even though I have always received the highest reviews, I still feel that I could be next. How do I approach management about this? In the past, supervisors and managers have said that they have no input into who gets let go. I do not believe this. Is there anyone in management that I should approach about securing my future? And how should that dialogue go?

Sincerely,
Worried in Texas

Dear Worried,

It sounds like your concerns about possible “workforce reductions” are justified because you have seen three of them in your company already. You are right to not let this subject become an “undiscussable.” Certainly if you don’t talk it out, you will act it out, and the possibility of being let go will affect your performance, your interactions, and your emotional well-being. You feel another layoff coming and definitely should talk to your management about this. Your question becomes, “How?”

Choose which manager to talk with by following your chain of command. Go first to your boss; then, if your boss isn’t able to answer your questions, request a conversation with his or her boss. You don’t want to create new problems by appearing to bypass your boss or by “ambushing” a senior leader.

Okay, so what do you say to your boss?

Let’s start by identifying what you don’t do. Don’t make accusations: “This company doesn’t care about its older workers!” Don’t start with an “I” statement of emotion: “I feel so betrayed!” These statements are sure to create defensiveness and take the conversation away from effective dialogue. Rather, begin your dialogue by stating the facts. For example: “We’ve had three workforce reductions in the last six years. I’ve noticed that each reduction is preceded by a fall in revenues, profits, and market share. The last three quarters have been trending down in each of these metrics. Even though I have consistently received high reviews, past managers have told me they have no input as to who stays and who is let go.”

By beginning with the facts, you minimize defensiveness and begin on common ground. People tend to agree on the facts, so they decrease the likelihood of an argument. By stating the facts, you also help your boss understand the reasons for your opinions.

Next, tentatively share your stories. In a way that shows you are open to consideration, share the assumptions and conclusions you are drawing based on your set of facts. The meaning we create from our experiences and data are our stories. Don’t dress up your opinions as facts. Take responsibility for the subjective nature of your conclusions and make room for other points of view. For example: “I’m beginning to think another workforce reduction is likely if not inevitable, and that my good performance will not protect me. I’m also wondering if my age makes me more vulnerable.”

Having stated your facts and shared your stories, you should ask the questions that are on your mind. Doing so invites others to disclose their knowledge and opinions and allows you to test your data and assumptions. Could you be mistaken? Is your data accurate and complete? Is there another way to interpret the facts? For example: “Is management planning another workforce reduction? Do my high reviews offer me any protection? Do you have input into these types of decisions? Does my age make me vulnerable? Help me understand what’s likely to happen.” Your next step is to listen well and ask clarifying questions.

This approach does not guarantee you’ll get the whole truth about what’s going on. Factors like management policy and corporate strategy still exist. However, this approach does dramatically increase the likelihood that your boss will dialogue with you and not get defensive or think ill of you. Crucial conversations skills are not methods of controlling or manipulating others. These skills do help to open up crucial subjects so you and others can talk about and revisit these issues as developments occur without great discomfort or unease.

By following this approach you might gain insights that will confirm or disconfirm your concerns and suspicions, enabling you to choose your response based on more accurate information and conclusions.

All the best in your crucial conversations,
Ron

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Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, Ron has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the American Society of Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management. Ron’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

3 thoughts on “Facing a Potential Layoff”

  1. This was excellent advice in 2006 and is still relevant today. By taking the emotion out of the dialogue and sticking with the facts the employee is probably protecting his job because he is openly discussing what others are surely thinking. This strategy positions the employee as being knowledgeable about what is happening in his own company as well as the broader economy.

    This also affects the employee on a psychological level because instead of focusing on potential negative emotions the paradigm shifts to one of positive emotion that is actionable. Lying in wait for what is perceived as a negative consequence that the employee has no control over is not effective.

    The company also benefits because they now have an empowered, knowledgeable employee who has the potential to contribute long term success instead of an employee who feels like they will be victimized in spite of their high performance.

    Thanks for the learning.

  2. As usual a wonderful approach. My eyebrows raised at mentioning the concern about age. Although, honest, it can instantly raise a manager’s defenses. I’d recommend discussing the other issues to lay the ground work. Then start the path again, if necessary, to include the concern about age, being very clear that this is not about accusing the company of age discrimination.
    I learn so much from these columns! Thank you.

  3. As a leader, I would find a role for someone who has the understanding of the metrics that precipitated the 3 previous “work force reductions”. As for addressing “does my age make me vunerable” – any manager that would even suggest yes is setting the organization up for a law suit- the conversation probably just shut down. Steer clear of that discussion if you want candid conversation!

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